Why Getty Going Free Is Such a Big Deal, Explained in Getty Images

The company just made tens of millions of its photos free for noncommercial use.
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A Getty photo, from Getty Images® (Getty)

Heres's one of the quirks of the Internet: It can make illegal activity so simple to engage in that you can forget it's against the law. 

Take image-sharing. If you find a photo, via Google Image Search or some such, that you want to publish on your blog (or tweet out to your followers, or use as your Instagram profile pic, or what have you), there is an extremely simple way to accomplish this: Download or screencap the image. Upload it. Boom. The Internet has shared its riches with you once again. 

If you have engaged in this process with an image that happens to be from Getty, the massive digital photo agency, however ... then you are, I am sorry to tell you, a thief. You have violated Getty's terms of service; you have stolen its stuff; you have (screen)grabbed something that was not yours to grab in the first place.

If you are one of these digital outlaws, though, your thieving days may soon be behind you. Late yesterday, Getty announced a new system for photo-sharing on its platform: embeddability. Some 35 million(!) of the agency's photos are now free for pretty much anyone to share—for, at least, noncommercial purposes. Which is big news, not only for the web publishers whose ranks are growing daily, but also for what the move says—and concedes—about the digital economy as it exists in early 2014. 

Below, seven reasons why Getty's embed capability is a big deal—explained through seven Getty embeds. 

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1. It's finding a way to capture value from thieves.

It's important to note that, while many millions of Getty images are now available for embed, not all Getty images are. And there seems to be a fairly significant split, from what I can tell, between stock images and photojournalism images when it comes to embeddability. So do a search for "Ukraine," and you''ll get lots of photos ... but that one of John Kerry shaking hands with Sergei Lavrov in Rome yesterday? Nope, not embeddable.

So, basically, if you're in need of a generally illustrative photo to decorate a story about craft beer or an unending winter or Getty's move to embeddable photos, you should have lots of (now-free!) options. If you're looking for photojournalism that will complement your story on Ukraine, however, you might be out of luck.

That distinction is important; it emphasizes, among other things, the bet that Getty is making by opening this new revenue stream. News outlets, after all, will always need news photos. Keeping the newsy stuff out of the "free photo" pool allows Getty to preserve its value for its already-paying digital subscribers, while the embed system could be a way to capture some value from The Rogues. This is Getty attempting to have its cake, and eat it, too.

And while the embeds are not, at this point, entirely user-friendly—they don't have auto-resizing, for example (the ones below, which originally came in several different widths, I had to resize manually)—they are at least a legal and straightforward way to share images. They're the iTunes of stock photography, basically. 

2. It's taking a big stand on the definition of "noncommercial." 

Here's another of the weird features of the Internet of 2014: Despite the frequency of the term "noncommercial" in terms of service agreements, we haven't settled on a common legal definition of it. Even Creative Commons, the Nieman Journalism Lab's Josh Benton points out, hasn't been willing to take a clear stand on the issue.

In 2011, Benton notes, Wired released a set of its photos under a Creative Commons license. When it did so, it allowed for the photos' "editorial use by bloggers or any other publisher," including those that had ads on them.

Getty, in its new terms of service, is taking a similar stand: 

You may only use embedded Getty Images Content for editorial purposes (meaning relating to events that are newsworthy or of public interest). Embedded Getty Images Content may not be used: (a) for any commercial purpose (for example, in advertising, promotions or merchandising) or to suggest endorsement or sponsorship; (b) in violation of any stated restriction; (c) in a defamatory, pornographic or otherwise unlawful manner; or (d) outside of the context of the Embedded Viewer.

But there's still murkiness, even in this. "Editorial purposes," as anyone who has wrestled with the whole "Wait? What's Fair Use here?" questions will tell you, is a notoriously vague standard; "commercial purpose" (given that many web publications with an "editorial" focus serve ads on their sites) is, too. 

Getty explained a little bit more about its thinking on this to the British Journal of Photography

Blogs that draw revenues from Google Ads will still be able to use the Getty Images embed player at no cost. “We would not consider this commercial use,” says Peters. “The fact today that a website is generating revenue would not limit the use of the embed. What would limit that use is if they used our imagery to promote a service, a product or their business. They would need to get a license.” A spokeswoman for Getty Images confirms to BJP that editorial websites, from The New York Times to Buzzfeed, will also be able to use the embed feature as long as images are used in an editorial context.

Again: The fact today that a website is generating revenue would not limit the use of the embed. It's notable that Peters emphasizes "today" here; these definitions could change. For now, though, Getty is taking a broad definition of "non-commercial." Whether it's a productive one remains to be seen. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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